Monica || Asheville, Nc.
A tarot card reader talks about travel, cynicism, and channeling your inner rockstar.
"Let's get centered, for a minute, first."
Her voice is low-frequency, her syllables click with the resonance of a wooden percussion instrument.
"You've been typing a lot."
Her deliberate movements as she lights the sage leaves, spreads a threadbare scarf over the table, and pins it down at either side with a collection of little amulets--a crystal, a wooden bead bracelet, an elephant god carved out of polished red stone--are calming, like a mother making a child's room ready for bed.
Monica is one of those people about whom the phrase "easy to talk to" doesn't seem enough. I met her only hours after she'd returned from a three-day excursion to Winston-Salem reading tarot cards at her friend's store, Kindred Spirits--I expected her to be tired and maybe a little resentful of the presence of someone she didn't know in the home she shares with her boyfriend Matt. I figured she'd just want some privacy and quiet.
Instead, she came out of the bedroom and her eyes opened with a welcoming curiosity, eager and yet patient. Despite being tall as a queen, with features that looked as though they'd been painted on porcelain, her tousled hair and oversized layers of clothes made her presence less imposing than it might have been. She was like mother bird and baby, at the same time.
I'm not sure I've ever met someone with whom I knew less where I stand, so comfortably.
She puts two decks on the cloth between us and tells me to pick which one speaks to me the most. Without hesitation, I go for the circular deck.
"I knew it."
She knows it's weird for people to hear; it's weird even for her to say it. Today, she was at an introductory chiropractor appointment offered in exchange for canned goods. He asked what she did for a living, and even though she's proud of what she does, she hesitated before answering.
She tries to talk herself out of it--there's no reason to feel weird about it. It's not so different from energy healing or reiki.
"It's like therapy, but cheaper, and with pictures. This isn't fortune telling. This is a massage for your soul, your heart."
The deck I've chosen are the Mother Peace cards. They are one of Monica's favorite decks, very unique in their style, and they're special to her because they were the first tarot cards she owned. They were given to her by a woman in Colorado who was the first to extend hospitality to her, when she was living on the road after leaving college. She'd stayed with the woman twice, and been read tarot both times; the third time, the woman gave the deck to her.
She'd encountered tarot before, in a Rumi oracle deck that a friend from home had lent her. She liked them for the nice phrases they had from the poet. She was home on break from school when she first tried reading them for herself.
"I remember being like 'Wow! This makes so much sense. Every time I draw a card, it's perfect.'"
She would even run to tell her mom:
"'You know what I'm going through? Guess what card I just pulled? This is crazy!' That force was the there from the beginning, that intense appreciation. Like 'Wow, this is real.'"
It was a point where she felt need of some kind of guidance. Her whole life had been centered around her love for dancing, until she joined the dance program at Eugene Lang. The competitive nature of the program, and of New York itself, depressed her. She found herself skipping classes, spending more of her time with the transients in Washington Square Park. She laughs, remembering that they called themselves the Asylum, old men who spent their time playing chess, playing music, talking to people passing by; it never occurred to her that such people could be dangerous.
We agree that stupidity is exactly what preserves us, sometimes--that something about truly blind trust seems to win people over. Monica never felt fear, around them--only gratitude for their friendship and the strange inspiration of the way they lived.
"I was always drawn to people who lived out of their bags."
She had just finished reading On the Road for the first time when a traveler stopped through the house where she lived, as a Couchsurfing.com guest. He was on the final leg of a hitchhiking odyssey to New York from California.
"The idea that this was happening with the youth was really thrilling to me. Part of me, this excitement, swelled up inside."
That summer, she was offered an internship teaching abstract painting to children affected by Hurricane Katrina. She moved to Pass Christian, Mississippi, for two weeks, a town on the edge of the ocean. It was there she decided to start traveling herself. She met up with a friend in New Orleans, drove from Texas to San Diego, then made her way up to San Francisco, and began searching Craigslist search for a ride back east.
Instead, she made plans to join a guy named Shawn who had come from Montana, left his car in Washington, and made his way down to San Francisco, where he found a gig driving an old man named Victor from Sacramento to his new home in Kingman, Arizona.
Victor spent the whole ride smoking cowboy cigarettes and drinking nonalcoholic beer, while she and Shawn chauffeured him in his car down into the desert. After getting him to Kingman, they hitchhiked together around the west, made their way back up to Washington where they picked up Shawn's car, and he drove her back to New York City in time to start school.
"When I got back from that trip, I felt so different than when I had started out, it felt impossible to continue my life in New York."
"Not just my life in New York, but life as I had known it. It started a very spiritual, emotional transformation. I felt pushed into this void, and the void was kind of myself, in a big way. I thought I knew who I was, what I was doing in the world, and traveling essentially wiped my slate clean. I realized that so much more was possible, but also I had no clue what the hell I was doing."
My head feels heavy, almost sleepy, from the moment Monica begins speaking…For once, I find it easier not to think; the very idea of analysis fatigues me. And yet there's something in me remaining lively and alert, like a lighter flame in a deserted stadium.
She tells me to set an intention for what we're about to do. My mouth runs for several minutes, as I search for the truth of what I really want here, before it occurs to me that maybe I should be sparing with what I say. She could, after all, just play off the clues I give her and then, of course I'll feel like it was on point, as she says. But I don't care. I decide to let it be what it's going to be, and bring what I'd honestly bring.
At her instruction, I draw six cards from the deck, and put them face down in front of her.
During Monica's second year at school, feeling a transformation burgeoning inside her, she started using the cards more often, and found them taking her deeper and deeper. Into what, exactly, is the hard part to answer. But at the end of the year, she left the city and the New School, and found friends to live with upstate. That summer, she struck out on her own, migrating with friends or alone, busking on the streets for enough money to buy food. When winter set in, she would return to New York.
The creative energy she used to put into dance, she now poured into writing and playing music. But a different kind of energy came alive in her, with hours of observing people around the country, whether meeting them or just watching them pass by.
"I've described tarot reading as if each person is a musical symphony, we're always these pieces of music that are playing. If a person walks into a room, you can feel what kind of music they are. I'm always reacting to that. You can feel how they are resonating within a space--if some one is sad, or angry, or devastatingly beautiful."
Monica can feel an energy from each person as clearly as if they were playing her a song. Tarot allows her to pull that music gently apart, to examine the notes, and understand the frequencies. The cards give her a locus for where different emotions come from--"the sadness I feel from you is from this over here, and that hopefulness is this over here."--and gives them both pictures and associations to understand it.
She would regularly do readings for the people she stayed with. But while sitting on the side of the street, busking, she realized that the images were connecting to the people that passed by. Provoked by an "unequal music to food-in-my-belly ratio," she began alternating her busking sets with setting up a sign up beside coffee shop tables that read "Tarot Reading--Donation."
And people began sitting down with her.
"They felt like they could trust me, because I was just passing through. Like a dream. I wasn't permanent in their environment. They were able to listen to me because of that."
The more they listened and heard her repeat their story to them, the more they would open up.
"You can feel them needing to be seen in that way, heard and felt. They need to know that somebody's paying attention."
It turns out that four of the cards I've drawn are arcana cards. That's unusual, Monica says--in her experience, usually only three of them show up.
This makes me feel unreasonably proud of myself.
The first card she turns over makes her laugh. She confesses, apologetically,
"I smile a lot when I do readings."
It never ceases to surprise her, how right the cards get it.
The first card I've turned chosen is the Lovers. This is one of the things I did mention specifically.
"It's the learning of union with another. But the cards that comes after the Lovers is the Chariot--it means discovering one's own independence. So you can expect that if you're in the Lovers in your life, experiencing union with someone, at some point in the future you will arrive at the Chariot, where you'll have to come back to yourself and discover your independence, and move forward from there."
The story of the tarot is most basically explained as the fool's journey; the higher level of understanding it is the story of the spirit navigating the human experience.
There are four suits and 22 arcana, or trump cards, that build the journey from the Fool at the bottom, to the World at the top. The World represents completion, the end of the journey. But that's not to say the tarot is complete, once a person draws the World--it just represents a completion of a single journey within a greater one. As soon as you start something new, or realize something new, you begin with the fool again.
The Fool, she tells me, is the void, the beginning; most tarot decks have a picture of a person with a bag slung over their shoulder, about to unknowingly step of a cliff. This represents birth, the awakening to the world without knowing what it is we've stepped into.
"Every time we're faced with transformation in our lives, I think we become the Fool again.'Wow, I am. What does that even mean--to be?' And then your journey begins again."
A lot of people are usually within three major arcana cards, meaning three major lessons will be often recurring throughout their life. It's kind of like a person's soul karma, Monica says: the things they are here to understand and learn, by living through it over and over, in different forms.
Monica also finds that the same card frequently comes up readings for different people--the Star, for example.
"I think most of us have these themes that appear in our life again and again. It's what we're here to understand and learn, and we'll keep living through it in different forms."
The next of my cards that she turns over is the Crone.
"She's alone, on a journey, but she ends up at the world."
I try not to be distracted by this parallel's distinctly unflattering nature, and instead wonder about its obviousness. I almost feel like this one's a freebie. I mean, what else is the Crone going to mean for me?
The doubt cuts through my sleepiness. I steal a look at Monica. She's not looking at me for a reaction; instead, she's dialed into the cards, looking at them in a way that more resembles listening. I feel as if I might just as easily not be there.
One of Monica's most memorable readings happened in Winston-Salem, for a ten-year-old boy named Logan. She had done a really successful reading for his mother, where his name had come up. The mom had asked if she could bring him to Monica's class the following day, and Monica gladly agreed. He had sat through the class, very attentive; at the end, he asked his mom if he could get a reading.
Monica had never read tarot for a child before, and was unsure how it would go…especially not knowing how much she ought to tell him, depending on what came up.
"But it was a really pure experience. Kids really get it, these concepts. His school came up, how he functions in his school. Basically that he's this really special and sensitive child, with a knack for anything magical, or in nature, which is why he ended up there. He has gotten teased in school and stuff. I was able to really validate who he is, this interest and passion in his life. I could feel how much that meant to him, how much it meant to his mother.
"He gave me this big hug. He came back again and gave me another one. We kept in touch for a while--me and him exchanged care packages."
The next card is the Tower. It represents crumbling, she says, and in most decks,the illustration shows people falling from the tower. In general, Monica tells me, the lesson of the tower card is the crumbling of structure, the destruction of what no longer works in our life.
"You can look at what comes before the tower and what comes after, and that's usually how it will occur in our life."
But in this deck, there's a woman sitting on top of the tower, holding bolts of lightning in her hands.
Monica says there's illumination that I'm grasping, for myself, for other people. That I'm learning how to seize hold of it and how to pass it on to others...that that's a big part of my journey, still.
For all the similarities between language I've heard in church, and how Monica talks about tarot, she doesn't think of it as a religion. For her, it's more of a relationship--and not just with the cards, but with the people it connects her to.
"I just consider it a powerful tool, that I love very much. Because it makes sense to me. I think it makes sense to other people. It's like that map--when people feel lost in their lives, in their world, unseen and unheard, to have someone sitting there with this map, these images that resonate and make sense, it's really comforting. They don't feel so alone."
Many cultures have traditions of divination, some of which Monica has experienced for herself. One of the most meaningful readings she had was from a friend who practiced a tradition that came from Africa. He put out a piece of fabric divided into four pieces, that represented different elements. He spread a handful of shells and beads in a circle, three times, out on the fabric. The meaning depended on which elements they landed in.
As different as it was from tarot cards, it worked on the same principles of intuition and personal connection. In the end, they're all just tools, she says,
"…just used to get whatever information or message we're going for."
The next card is the Four of Swords. It shows a woman sitting in the center of a golden pyramid, whose base is pinned down by swords. These are air signs, Monica says, and have to do with the mind.
"This card represents alignment, getting your head right, clearing out the rubble of your mind."
The power that she wields in people's lives, she says, comes specifically from being someone who's only passing through. They can listen to her in a way that they couldn't to a mother or a sibling, or possibly even to an authority figure of their faith. The power comes from their own reaching out for something, and their freedom to accept it and choose how to act on it.
That is why she's so careful with what she says.
"In any person, I'm trying to validate a person's core strength, so they're not living from their weaknesses. I'm not telling them 'In five years, this will happen.' Just trying to reflect back to them who they are, their highest self."
There are only two cards left, and Monica falls quiet, contemplating them less readily than before.
The one on her left is the Star card.
"What the Swords are for the mind, the Star is for the emotions."
Monica laughs, as if over a secret, when she says that she never expected to be a tarot card reader…not the job, and certainly not the title. But since moving to Asheville, she has worked at A Faraway Place on Battery Park Avenue, where she sits in the back and does readings for people who come in off the street. She also teaches occasional classes at Kindred Spirit in Winston-Salem, not only in understanding the tarot and learning to read for others.
"I feel like it's given me a voice for things I've always felt, experienced in the world. Like when you meet a person, you've always known them, but then they're right there, talking to you. It's been incredibly empowering. When I met the tarot, it was like meeting myself."
She's built up a number of repeat clients, now, and frequently travels to festivals and gatherings to do readings. Still, she's hesitant to call tarot her career path.
"Career is a very stability-oriented thing. I got off the road two years ago, but just because I got off the road doesn't mean I stopped functioning like someone who's traveling. Only last year was I able to really start appreciating rootedness, and stability."
At the same time, she's not sure she's ready for stability at any price. Tarot might not be a conventional career path, but a single reading earns as much as she used to make after a full day of busking.
While she's grateful, this conflict sometimes recalls the "Am I good enough?" anxiety she encountered in New York City. The competitive environment there was traumatic to the pure, practiced love she'd always had for dance. Music was meant to be a rebirth of that purity and passion, but after months of strumming her heart out on unknown streets, that played a number on her, too.
"It only takes one person to tip you over; you never want to get back on that horse again, even though that love and passion is there. I think there's a very wounded part of me...that was wounded through my frustration that no one seemed to hear me, sometimes. Feeling like no matter how hard I tried, I'd never catch my break. Moments would come that I'd feel like my break was there--I was about to get a recording session with someone, meet people from Sony, and things would fall through again, and again."
Naturally, there are people who ask Monica if boyfriends are cheating, or if they should take certain jobs. This is something Monica flatly (but, one can only imagine, empathetically) refuses to do.
"That's boundary-setting for me. I don't feel like it's any of my business to say things like that. Because our words are very powerful, first of all. I'm in a position of power, and I have to recognize that. What I say, people are using in their life. I try not to give any absolutes."
Approached with rules, it becomes almost like a science--there are patterns she can recognize in how people approach her, and what they seek to know. When a woman is talking about her boyfriend, she's giving all these clues about her boyfriend as she's talking, with her voice, her energy. The woman's connection to the man allows Monica to connect to him, too, through her. At that point, it isn't hard to suggest that their path is pointed in a certain direction. What Monica won't do is tell them whether to continue in it.
It's a lot less mystical than people think, she insists. It's really just like opening a filing cabinet--you take out someone else's pages, hold them up and ask "What does this mean?" and they can usually tell you.
One time, Monica drew the travel card for a girl, and kept getting the word "Arizona" in her head, until she finally said it out loud; the girl excitedly answered that she already had plans to travel to Arizona, the following week. In Colorado, another time, Monica kept getting the word Grace in her head for a man while reading his cards. It didn't seem to fit with the cards, exactly, but finally she said it to him, assuming it meant something sort of metaphysical. When she said the name, the people within earshot got quiet. He started to cry, and pulled up his sleeve; the word Grace was tattooed on his arm. It was the name, he said, of his estranged daughter.
The last card she turns over is the Wands card, which represents community. A fascination with community, is how she says it. Somehow, where the other concepts fell home with a sort of soft absorption, this one hits home harder, a greater clang of insistence to know what it means and when it will come clear.
Spiritual boundaries notwithstanding, Monica can sympathize with the people who want their fortunes told, or at least some specific direction given. Much as she appreciates the work, and its effect on people, there's still a frustrated musician/dancer/performer within her that wants its moment of expression.
"That part still rocks on, inside! But that reality sinking--how long do you push for those dreams? Because family is going to take priority pretty soon. In the face of growing older, that quest for making it through your passions no matter what...it becomes...do you know what I mean? It's hard to keep that up.
The frown on her forehead smooths out.
"…that's my cynicism. We make it harder. I'm choosing to make it harder than it needs to be."
Monica was told by another reader that the tarot wouldn't be her long-term vocation, but it was worth pursuing now for the pathways it would open up for her in the future. This concurred with something Monica had just heard, in a dream:
"I swear it was the voice of God. 'Do this tarot now, and the music's going to pick up, and the tarot's all going to fall away. It'll be this nice rebalancing of the scales.'"
She smiles with beatific peace.
"I feel it all coming together, kind of showing me what this is all really about."
Learn more about Monica and tarot through her blog. Visit Monica at Healing Heart Tarot. Check out her band, the Goodness Graceful...they perform frequently around Asheville.